“It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.” George Orwell, “1984.”
This May Day brought the explosive global resurgence of Occupy, one of the most significant social movement in decades. In New York City, the heart of global capitalism and center of the movement, the New York Civil Liberties Union estimated that 30,000 demonstrators took part in a massive rally and march down Broadway, led by a score of city taxicabs. As has become alarmingly common for a country that constantly proclaims its zealous devotion to democracy, the day ended with brutal police violence and arrests.
The visible success of Occupy in creating a space for the voice of the people impelled uncontrolled thousands to pour onto the streets of New York City, Oakland, and elsewhere around the country and across the world on May Day, in the start of what US organizers have called an “American Spring.” Touting its message of class solidarity—”we are the 99 percent” – Occupy has revealed the profoundly undemocratic nature of a democratic consensus expressed by corporate-sponsored political representatives, demanding direct popular involvement in areas of social and political life normally dominated by ruling class power.
The powerful rejuvenation of the Occupy movement, however, was used by the US media – owned by the very same interests that Occupy directly threatens – as an opportunity to finally kill the Occupy movement and marginalize the voices of its participants. Since September, the mainstream press in the US has systematically ignored and demonized the Occupy movement. The nakedness of the class bias in this case, however, was especially jarring: the size and significance of the protests were downplayed, reports of police brutality were largely ignored, and the movement was portrayed as violent and dangerous. Many of the most prominent US news outlets, such as The New York Times, practically ignored the protests altogether. These shameful distortions by the corporate press display the function of the media as an organ of the rule of “the 1 percent,” and reveal how threatened elites are by organized, direct action and democratic participation.
While tens of thousands of activists took to the streets on May Day, the only prominent mention of economic inequality on the homepage of The New York Times web site was titled “A Wealthy Guy’s Case for Inequality,” written by a former associate of Mitt Romney at Bain Capital. The Times, in fact, did not even cover the protests as a national story, instead merely producing a brief and dismissive 400-word article buried in the “Paper of Record’s” Metro section. Predictably, the article focused mostly on the wickedness of the demonstrators, who “snarled traffic and smashed windows.” The Times did see fit to cover May Day protests in Europe in its international section, but here, too, no connection was made to protests of a nearly identical nature and size at home. In other words, since “the march was too big to allow Occupy Wall Street to continue to be reduced to a dog-and-pony show,” as Occupy Handbook editor Janet Byrne said, the Times simply chose to ignore it altogether.
The Washington Post adopted a similar approach, producing just one short story, also exiled to the local section, which likewise took great pains to amplify claims of “reports of violent clashes on the West Coast.” It is telling that while these major national papers were outraged by some broken windows, they ignored the thuggish attacks by the police on both coasts on peacefully assembled human beings.
The Tea Party, a movement which serves rather than threatens corporate interests, has received front-page coverage in virtually all of the nation’s national newspapers for events that were smaller and less significant than this week’s May Day protests. Yet, a truly substantial social movement with genuine emancipatory potential and a broad base of support among Americans is largely considered un-newsworthy by the corporate press. When the demonstrations were covered, crude caricatures masquerading as objective news ruled the day.
Those outlets that bothered to note the nationwide outpouring at all did so mostly to exaggerate reports of vandalism in Seattle (described as acts of “violence” in the mainstream press), portraying a peaceful movement as chaotic and violent. Other examples of May Day coverage had stories gleefully predicting the demise of the Occupy movement. “Occupy Resurgence is a Dud,” announced a Reuters video report that came out early on Tuesday. Occupy, the report declared, “did not have any movement left,” and “lacks one clear message everyday Americans can rally behind.” Interestingly, a tweet from Reuters would later discredit their own report, reporting, “Occupy Wall Street resurgence far from being a dud.” CNN.com, likewise, published an article that labored to explain “Why Occupy May Day fizzled.” The article proclaimed, “Occupy Wall Street movement, with its fuzzy messages and vague goals, is not going to leave a major mark.” The author did not bother to explain how “We are the 99 percent” is a “fuzzy message.”
May Day has long been known in the United States as the working-class holiday which the state refuses to recognize. This May Day, too, President Obama issued a pro forma injunction that we honor “Loyalty Day” by hanging the flag or pledging allegiance to the republic for which it stands. But what might be unexpected by those who take the professed values of that republic seriously is the degree to which our “free press” has followed suit – not to mention the state’s brutally violent response to a genuinely democratic, popular movement seeking to build a more egalitarian, participatory society.
Occupy is arguably at its most critical juncture since the eviction of Zuccotti Park and the effort by the media to portray Occupy as a toothless shell of its former self is not without potential consequences. It is vital that it be understood that the media are not any more neutral in the war being fought on the streets of our cities than are the corporations that own it. Occupiers can expect no favors from the American media, which will continue to serve their corporate owners and not the public at large. This means that the occupiers must expect to struggle mightily for their view of the world – and even their very presence – to break into mainstream political discourse. The narrative that “Occupy is dead” is merely the latest salvo by the 1 percent. We must not let them get away with it.